Government Military and Veterans Affairs

Bill would change status of History Nebraska

A state agency with a recent history of controversy would be placed under the direct authority of the governor under a bill considered Feb. 1 by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

Sen. Steve Erdman
Sen. Steve Erdman

Under LB1169, introduced by Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, the Nebraska State Historical Society — commonly known as History Nebraska — would become a code agency under Nebraska state law. Code agency directors are appointed by the governor with legislative approval and report directly to the governor.

History Nebraska has been a noncode agency since 1994 and is governed by a board of 15 trustees, three of whom are appointed by the governor. The remaining trustees are elected by History Nebraska members in each of the state’s three congressional districts. The director is appointed by the board of trustees.

Erdman said the agency has had management issues for years, most recently when felony charges were brought against its former director for misdirecting a donation to a private charitable organization that he founded.

“There’s nothing new about mismanagement of funds at the historical society,” Erdman said. “We need oversight by the state auditor as well as the state treasurer to make sure that these funds are taken care of in an appropriate manner.”

LB1169 would require prior approval of gifts to History Nebraska of real property or with a monetary value of $10,000 or more. It also would outline the director’s duties and prohibit the director from serving on the board of any charitable organization that provides monetary or other support to History Nebraska.

Finally, the bill would remove administrative duties from the trustees and instead give them an advisory role to the director.

“As I began to analyze what we need to do to try and bring some commonsense approach to management for this agency, it was quite obvious that the best way to do that was to make them a code agency,” Erdman said.

Roger Lempke, president of the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation — a nonprofit that fundraises for History Nebraska — testified in support of the measure on his own behalf.

History Nebraska needs a different leadership model, he said, one that includes greater oversight. Having a director who is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature would help restore confidence in the agency, he said.

“History Nebraska is suffering from a lack of public and government trust,” Lempke said.

Also testifying in support was Jason Jackson, director of the state Department of Administrative Services. Calling LB1169 a “government accountability bill, pure and simple,” Jackson said the measure would address the root causes that allowed History Nebraska’s previous director to engage in “malfeasance.”

DAS is responsible for accounting and personnel operations for the state, he said, and would be better able to “restore appropriate controls” and address operational deficiencies within History Nebraska if it were made a code agency.

Nick Walter, a current member of the board of trustees, opposed the measure.

History Nebraska gets only 54% of its funding from state general funds and 14% from the federal government, he said. The rest of the funds needed to carry out the agency’s important cultural mission come from fundraising and donations, Walter said, which likely would be negatively impacted by the bill.

“Nobody leaves money in their will to DAS,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on LB1169.

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